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ControversyIncorrect spot in end-of-regulation scramble could’ve impacted playoff race

Incorrect spot in end-of-regulation scramble could’ve impacted playoff race

Week 12: Steelers at Ravens

With only moments to think, officials can make decisions based on digesting a 115-page rulebook. On average, 98% of the time they get it right. When there is an error it could have an impact on the game. When divisional foes meet, it could have an impact on the playoffs.

In all fairness, though, even if a bad call occurs, there usually are several opportunities that the affected team did not take advantage of. Much like the weather, the officiating is an element of the game mostly out of the team’s control, but something good teams adapt to.

While most errors are inexcusable, this one has some mitigating circumstances. However, the call is still wrong, and mitigating circumstances do not help officials in their evaluations which determine playoff assignments.

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Video of fumble and field goal attempt at NFL.com

In a hard-fought divisional game between the Ravens were within long field-goal range against the Steelers near the end of regulation. On third and 9 from the Steelers 34, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco fumbled the ball at the 42, which was recovered by the Ravens at the 37 with 18 seconds remaining. Out of timeouts, the clock was running while a fire-drill substitution of the field-goal personnel ensued.

Headlinesman Mark Hittner came in to mark the dead ball spot at the 37. While that was the correct dead-ball spot, the Ravens should have gotten the ball at the 42, the spot of the fumble. (The responsibility for the spot goes to the head referee, officially.) Sunday Night Football announcer Al Michaels, after the fact, did call attention to this.

NFL Rulebook 8–7–6: If a fumble by either team occurs after the two-minute warning:

(a) The ball may be advanced by any opponent.

(b) The player who fumbled is the only player of his team who is permitted to recover and advance the ball.

(c) If the recovery or catch is by a teammate of the player who fumbled, the ball is dead, and the spot of the next snap is the spot of the fumble, or the spot of the recovery if the spot of the recovery is behind the spot of the fumble.

Fortunately for Ed Hochuli’s crew, the field goal attempt was two yards short.

I do seem to remember a game in the last five years or so where the ball was spotted incorrectly before a field goal. (I’m looking for it; if you remember, put it in the comments.) Having realized the mistake, the officials wiped out the down, respotted the ball, and the field goal was taken five yards closer. Had there been a field goal from 56 yards, you can imagine the uproar if the officials salted the down to respot for a 61-yard field goal.

So while there was a major error, there are other circumstances that need to be considered:

  • If there was a conference regarding the spot of the ball, Hochuli would have had to call an official’s timeout. This would have given the Ravens time to line up a field goal, which (we’ll never know) could have been an advantage on a 61-yard field-goal attempt.
  • During the mass substitution, officials had to count that there were 11 players on the field. (Offense is counted by the umpire, line judge and headlinesman; defense by the side judge, field judge and back judge.)
  • The field judge and back judge had to position themselves under the uprights for the kick.
  • The line judge and headlinesman were watching for the offense to be set for a full second prior to a snap.
  • The headlinesman was on the Steelers sideline, so it was possible that the coach could have signaled a timeout prior to the kick.

However, as the vice-president of officiating will probably tell us in his weekly “Official Review” video, having too much to think about is not an acceptable excuse. Fortunately, the spot of the ball did not have a determination on the final score or playoff seedings.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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